Celtics: A Look Ahead as Boston Gears Up for Playoff Push

What a satisfying few weeks it has been for Celtics fans. Another solid win over the Pistons last night. The Celtics are gaining momentum, winning 7 of their last 8, as we enter the final week before the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the Pistons can’t afford to lose Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for long (possibly strained groin on an awkward slip due to a wet spot on the court).

The Boston Celtics are beating solid teams by wide margins. The Celtics bench is dominating. We knew the depth would be a strength this year. As the dog days of the NBA season take effect (pre-All-Star break), a team’s bench becomes a bigger issue. Marcus Smart missed a month with a knee injury. Now he looks fresher than ever, knocking down 17 of his last 37 from deep, adding much needed scoring to the roster.

The Celtics are 29-22, tied for 3rd in the East. Half of a game separates four teams: Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, and Miami, all fighting for the third and fourth seeds, which would grant them home court in the first round. Indiana sits in 7th, only two games behind Celtics and Hawks. Detroit is right behind the Pacers. Only Cleveland and now Toronto appear safely entrenched at the top of the conference. March and April promise to be filled with drama.

Despite their record, the Celtics rank 20th in the NBA in rebounding. In many ways, it’s not surprising the C’s get out-rebounded often. Only one of their big men, Jared Sullinger, is all that big, and Stevens chooses not to crash the offensive glass (though he’s smartly letting Marcus Smart go after more boards since returning from the knee injury). Amir Johnson does a solid job in limited minutes. Neither Kelly Olynyk or Tyler Zeller are all that wide-bodied, tall, intimidating or bouncy. That depth is evident in Zeller’s effectiveness over the team’s recent hot streak.

Who is wide-bodied? That’d be Sully. Sullinger grabs 8.6 rebounds / game in only 23.4 min (13.1 reb / 36 min, which ranks 10th in the NBA per 36). Sully would get more minutes if his range extended to 23 feet, but his 26.4% from deep limits his effectiveness. Meanwhile, Kelly Olynyk is an absolute tear from deep (t-10th in NBA at 42.8%), but only grabs 4.4 rebounds in 21 min/game. Olynyk’s 7.1 rebounds per 36 min, ranks him 133rd in the NBA per 36, next to other ground-bound big men like Kendrick Perkins, Roy Hibbert and Tiago Splitter. I have often wished Danny Ainge could somehow combine Sullinger and Olynyk into one human. Jared Olynyk. Kelly Sullinger. Or perhaps…Jarry Olynger.

Jarry Olynger: Hybrid Human

I long for the day Jarry Olynger suits up for the Celtics. A man-bun sporting, wide-ass-shaking center who drains threes and swallows rebounds. Instead, Ainge will soon have to decide on Sullinger, who will be a restricted free agent in July. Thankfully, Stevens recognized David Lee wasn’t going to be useful enough to take Zeller’s limited minutes after mid-December.

 

  • Celtics record when winning rebound battle: 19-5
  • Celtics record when losing rebound battle: 10-17
  • Celtics record when David Lee plays: 15-15
  • Celtics record when David Lee doesn’t play: 14-7
  • Celtics record when Kelly Olynyk makes at least one three-pointer: 21-14
  • Celtics record when Kelly Olynyk doesn’t make a three-pointer: 7-8
  • As Mike Gorman noted during Wednesday night’s game, the Celtics have outscored opponents by 137 points with Kelly Olynyk on the floor over the last 10 games.

To Trade or Not to Trade (Feb 18 deadline)

After listening to a few NBA trade-deadline speculation podcasts, I’m not expecting Ainge to find a deal that makes sense. The Celtics will not (and should not) deal this June’s top-5 pick they acquired from Brooklyn. If teams are asking for Crowder, the Celtics would not only be trading away their newly-developing heartbeat/spirit-lifter, but they would also be resetting the chemistry. They would need to acquire a player they are sure will stay in Boston, not a one-year rental. Blake Griffin’s name has been floating around since the ridiculous scuffle he had with the equipment fella. Plus, the Clips keep on winning without him. But Crowder’s contract is too valuable ($7 million per year for four more years, even more valuable when the cap skyrockets), not to mention how emotionally deflating it would be to trade him during this honeymoon phase: the fans are falling in love with him and his feisty play.

If the Brooklyn pick doesn’t turn into a top-3 pick, Ainge might consider adding a future Brooklyn pick to the 2016 pick, and seeing if he can move up to #1 or #2. Trouble is, which team would pass up Simmons if it meant a #4 or #5 this year and a possible top-8 pick from Brooklyn in 2018?

In addition to Jarry Olynger, the Celtics need one more shooter/scorer they can rely on in the 4th quarter. Ryan Anderson seems like he’d be an ideal fit.

February schedule

Rest of Celtics schedule in February, rated on 1 to 5 scale in order of intrigue/ importance/impact.

Fri 2/5 @ Cleveland Cavs (4)
C’s need to show they can compete with the best. Since player’s only meeting in Cleveland, Love is getting elbow touches and looking rejuvenated.
Sun 2/7 vs. Sacramento Kings (3)
This one doesn’t impact East standings, but Sacramento is fighting for the 8th spot in the West. The Rondo-haters will be out in droves for this one. Hopefully they don’t make too much noise.
Tue 2/9 @ Milwaukee Bucks (2)
Orlando packed the paint and tempted the Celtics into taking 46 three-pointers in their recent loss. Boston should do the same to Milwaukee, as long as Khris Middleton isn’t taking more than a few of those.
Wed 2/10 vs. Los Angeles Clippers (4) 
Final game before the break. Second game of Back-to-back. 3rd in 4 nights. 6th game in 9 nights. Against a team that is 13-3 without Blake Griffin. If the Celtics can dig deep and win this one, it feels like it would give them a boost heading into the break.
All-Star Break
Fri 2/19 @ Utah Jazz (3)
With Rudy Gobert healthy, the Jazz are 15-12. They’ve won five of their last 6. They’ll be fighting with Sacramento and Portland for the chance to get massacred by the Warriors.
Sun 2/21 @ Denver Nuggets (2)
One of the few soft games on the schedule for February. The thin-air of Denver, where the Nuggets are running, but not defending.
Mon 2/22 @ Minnesota Timberwolves (1)
A chance to see two of the best under-23 year-olds in the league in Towns and Wiggins. Make the Wolves shoot threes, which they refuse to do. Will Ricky Rubio be a starting point guard in the NBA in 4 years? He’ll have to learn how to shoot to answer that definitively.
Thu 2/25 vs Milwaukee Bucks (2)
See above.
Sat 2/27 vs Miami Heat (5)
This one feels like a playoff-seeding game. The last seven weeks of the season will be full of those. Miami, Atlanta, Indiana, Chicago.
Mon 2/29 vs Utah Jazz (3)
see above.
Post All-Star Break Games to Circle
2/27 vs MIA
3/5 @ CLE
3/15 @ IND
3/18 @ TOR
3/23 vs TOR
4/1 @ GS
4/9 @ ATL
4/13 vs MIA (final game)
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NBA Thoughts, Vol. 83 (Isaiah is an All-Star)

Celtics Thoughts

  • Isaiah Thomas is clearly deserving of an All-Star spot. And so is Jae Crowder…except defense is never equally valued and is still very tough to quantify, despite RPM, on-off numbers, and all the Synergy sports numbers you can find. Regardless of who makes the team, Celtics fans should appreciate both Isaiah and Jae. It’s fun to have the shortest All-Star in the NBA on the team I love.
  • Thomas takes 6.4 free-throws per game (and makes 5.7, 89%). As a team, the Celtics take 22.5 (t-16th). When Isaiah is out of the game, it becomes obvious how tough it is for Boston to create in the half-court.
  • Chris Forsberg (ESPN Boston) wrote a short piece about how casual Boston sports fans should enjoy the next few months of Celtics basketball. These types of articles annoy the shit out of me. I understand that promoting the local sports team is important, but the people need to be cajoled into caring about the team are the same ones who will boo when the team doesn’t play well in the first half of a playoff game. Having to beg non-hoops fans to enjoy the final three months of the regular season, instead of the last couple of weeks in April, heading into the playoffs feels cheap and ugly.
  • The Celtics are one of seven teams who will likely be fighting for The 5th through 8th playoff spots in the East. The other six: Miami, Detroit, Indiana, Washington, New York and Charlotte. It’s certainly possible Orlando could turn things back around, which would make it 8 teams for those 4 spots, but it doesn’t seem likely.
  • Marcus Smart‘s knee injury (out from 11/20-12/27) not only kept him off the court, but affected his conditioning. As one would expect when dealing with a somewhat serious knee injury, Smart was not in basketball shape upon returning. Watching him in late December and early January, as Stevens gradually increased his minutes, you could see the energy was there, but the crisp movement wasn’t. You could also see it in his shooting. Three-pointers were short, and his rhythm wasn’t there. As shooting coaches will tell you, it’s all in the footwork and the legs. After going 1 of 12 in his first five games back, it didn’t get much better in the following six games he was 4 of 22. During the recent snow day (the Sixers game was postponed on Saturday due to Weezer’s song “My Name is Jonas”), Smart said he planned on shooting threes in the gym all afternoon. In the two games since, he has made 5 of 11 from deep. Celtics fans hope that continues.
  • Kelly Olynyk (thanks, Eric) has been on a tear from deep since December. He’s up to 43.4% for the season. Olynyk provides much needed bench-scoring. In 44 games, Olynyk’s splits are noticeable.
    • 23 wins: 12.1 pts, 5.1 reb, 1.9 ast, 49.8 FG%, 45.3 3-PT%.
    • 21 losses: 7.8 pts, 3.6 reb, 1.2 ast, 41% FG, 41% 3-PT%
  • Olynyk‘s three-point percentages by month:
    • October 20%
    • November 35.6%
    • December 46.3%
    • January 51.1%
  • After experimenting with David Lee as a bench-unit facilitator early in the season, Stevens has given Jonas Jerebko and recently, Tyler Zeller, some minutes. In the last couple of weeks, Jerebko has found a groove (it seems like 15 minutes per game allows for getting into a flow, whereas 8-12 minutes per game doesn’t). Zeller, who shot 55% from the field last year, has made 10 of his last 16 shots.

 

Around the Association

  • Injuries continue to mount and the 82-game season is rarely mentioned lately. It’s obvious that the season should be shortened. We’d take 76, even though 70 or 66 makes more sense.
  • Tim Duncan not playing tonight in Oakland (sore knee that has been sore for all 44 games so far this year) is in keeping with Pop’s sourpuss, always-keep-your-hand-hidden philosophy of the regular season. Regardless of the outcome, Gregg Popovich can’t lose. If the Warriors win, the Spurs have an excuse. If the Spurs win, the Warriors have no excuse. In addition, the 7’3″ Serbian giant Boban Marjanovic and the well-rested David West get ample opportunities to audition.
  • The Toronto Raptors might not appear much different on the surface. DeMarre Carroll in (before he went out with a knee injury, probably connected to last May’s knee injury in the playoffs), Amir Johnson out, some bench help added in Biyombo, Scola, and Joseph. They may not appear entirely different, but their core has improved individually.
    • DeMar DeRozan is a scoring machine impersonating McGrady with his in-between game and attacking the rim;
    • Kyle Lowry‘s conditioning and patience on the court have improved.
    • Despite averaging only 14.8 assists (27th), the Raptors have an Offensive rating of 105.2 (tied with Cleveland for 5th overall, and best in East).
    • With Jonas Valanciunas healthy and scoring at will in the paint, the Raptors have gone 18-9.
  • Toronto has won 8 in a row, though they’ve had the luxury of mostly avoiding the top teams in that stretch (Celtics, Clippers without Griffin). If Toronto has truly taken a leap, they’ll need to show it against Chicago and Cleveland, who they face at the end of February.

Listen: The Vertical, new podcast with Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski (Woj).

No Defense for this Defenselessness

  • The bottom half of the Western Conference can’t play any defense. Of the NBA’s worst 9 defenses, 7 come from the West. Here they are, in order from completely awful to bad:
    • Lakers (108.4 rating): We knew going in that Kobe should have retired. We know going in they were full of rookies. We knew going in that Lou Williams and Nick Young haven’t heard of defense. We knew going in that Byron Scott was the coach.
    • Pelicans & Suns (106.2 rating): The Pelicans were not supposed to be this awful defensively. Omer Asik’s early retirement (while still playing a few ugly minutes each game) has contributed. Injuries certainly contributed. The Suns were supposed to run up and down the court really fast and then Tyson Chandler was supposed to save them. Tyson can’t play defense for the other four guys with Suns jerseys, can’t run like that, and probably isn’t exactly fired up. Then Eric Bledsoe got hurt and the Suns went up in flames.
    • Nuggets & Blazers (105.9, 105.6 rating). Emmanual Mudiay hasn’t exactly gotten off to a tantalizing start. More Muddy than anything. The Nuggets have offense-first players (Gallinari, Faried, and the surprisingly lithe Will Barton). Sadly, defense hasn’t come second. The Blazers are terribly young, and C.J. McCollum, though he seems like a nice young gentleman, should probably be sparking the bench, rather than trying to defend taller shooting guards.
    • Rockets & Kings (105.5, 104.9). Both teams are too busy trying to score points to worry about defense. Kevin McHale is probably still wondering what happened. George Karl is afraid of getting his hopes up…he’s been around too long for that. But don’t look now, the Kings have won 8 of 11, and DeMarcus Cousins is the hottest big man in the game in January, averaging 32.5, 13.7 rebounds while shooting 50% overall and 47% from deep (!).
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